Past fires and post-fire impacts reconstructed from a southwest Australian stalagmite
Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
Speleothem records of past environmental change provide an important opportunity to explore fire frequency and intensity in the past, and the antecedent climatic conditions leading to fire events. Here, fire sensitive geochemical signals in a stalagmite from Yonderup Cave, a shallow cave in Western Australia, are compared to well-documented wildfire events that occurred in recent decades. The results are extended to identify wildfires during the growth interval of the speleothem (1760 CE–2005 CE). Principal component analysis of the stalagmite time-series revealed distinct peaks in a combination of phosphorus and metal (aluminium, zinc, copper and lead) concentrations in response to known fire events, which are interpreted to have come from ash. Varying responses in the geochemical signal in the pre- and post-European colonisation period are likely linked to changes in land management, fire frequency and fire intensities. Of note is what we infer to be a particularly intense fire event concluded to have occurred in 1897 ± 5 CE, which climate sensitive proxies (δ18O and bedrock-derived elements) indicate was preceded by a multi-decadal dry period that began in the late 1860s. The intensity of the deduced fire event is supported by a peak in P that is 6.3 times higher than elsewhere in the speleothem, accompanied by a peak in Zn. It was also inferred that changes to the surface-cave hydrology occurred as a result of this event, indicated by increased input of colloidal organic material onto the stalagmite that was interpreted to be caused by shallow karst bedrock fracturing from the heat-induced deformation that is observed after intense fires. These findings show the potential for speleothems to provide dated records of fire intensity and recurrence intervals. Further development could lead to a better understanding of the climate-fire relationship and the effects of land-management practices on wildfire frequency and intensity.
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